by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the most prominent features of the Roaring Twenties was the phenomenal growth of the motion picture industry and one of its many subsidiaries, the movie theater. The increasing sophistication of film was mirrored by the rise of the “movie palace” with its opulent decor, focus on patron comforts and other elements.
By the end of the decade, the development of the talkie was a revolution on many fronts, including the sheer sensory effect that sound had on filmgoers, the vital question of which actors could make the transition, the refitting of movie theaters and, of course, the intensive and expensive establishment of soundstages for motion picture production.
The highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection for this newest entry in the “That’s a Wrap” series of posts on the motion picture industry is the 29 October 1928 edition of NOW, an employee magazine published biweekly, starting in 1927, by West Coast Theatres, an expansive chain acquired by the William Fox Organization, owners of the Fox Studios.
As has been noted here previously, Fox, who established his studio in New Jersey in 1915, took a 40% stake in West Coast in 1925. With the development of talking pictures, he poured $3 million into a sound recording system that he dubbed “Movietone” and the first Fox movie to employ the technology was Sunrise, released in 1927.
In early 1928, Fox was finally able to secure control of West Coast and then embarked on another massive project, as he maneuvered to rise further in competition with such major studio conglomerates like Paramount and Warner Brothers. This was the establishment of a second Fox studio, the first was on Western Avenue in Hollywood, with what was generally known as “Movietone City” or “Fox Movietone City,” a 40-acre site acquired at the edge of the Westwood Hills development undertaken by the Janss Investment Company.
When his rival, Marcus Loew, owner of a theater chain and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, died in 1927, Fox tried to take over those holdings and an arrangement was reached two years later. Unaware of and alarmed by the deal, MGM studio bosses Louis B. Mayer and Irving G. Thalberg sought to upend the deal, including the former utilizing federal Department of Justice antitrust unit connections.
With his massive investments on multiple fronts, Fox, who became financially overextended, was, as so many were, heavily adversely affected by the crash of the stock market, beginning in October 1929, and, within a short time, was in dire straits. The following year, he lost control of his empire and, desperately resorting in the attempted bribery of a judge in a bankruptcy proceeding and then perjuring himself, the former mogul went to prison. The Fox studio ended up merged with 20th Century Pictures and Fox died nearly two decades after his ignominious end as a film industry titan.
This edition of NOW includes a good deal of interesting content. For example, West Coast division manager Herschel Stuart, who’d run theater in the Pacific Northwest from a Seattle office was promoted to operate the Fox-Poli Circuit of venues from a New Haven, Connecticut headquarters and was replaced by Charles M. Thrall. With the upcoming presidential election, which saw the Republican Party continue its dominance as Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover easily besting Democrat Al Smith, governor of New York, there were many West Coast venues hosting midnight showings to raise profits.
Another West Coast promotional concept was the issuing of scrip books to patrons for use at participating stores ad other businesses as part of the upcoming holiday season. The publication observed that “there is no city on our circuit that hasn’t such an opportunity,” so managers of theaters were implored, “the store will want increased trade for the holiday season, and all stores, everywhere, go out of their way to bring in such trade.” By working with retail establishments on the scrip idea, “this is a sure way to accomplish that, and at the same time to benefit ourselves.”
Addressing “the perplexing problem of effective mail distribution of [theater] programs,” it was reported that Los Angeles division head J.J. Franklin, brother of West Coast president Harold B. Franklin, saved more than $400 weekly “by consolidating all of the downtown de luxe houses and several of the major suburban theatres in the same program, and mailing them under a special permit,” probably bulk mail. Considered more important was that, while each theater sent out a certain number of programs specific to it, the new approach meant that the venues all had distribution of 50,000 publications and the cost was about the same.
Recognized as “something unheard of in theatre experience” was the smash success of the MGM picture, Our Dancing Daughters, which starred an actor just garnering some significant attention but who would reach the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom, Joan Crawford. It was reported that “everywhere it is a clean-up, but nowhere is this more noticeable than in Los Angeles.”
Screening at Loew’s State Theatre, the film “smashed all records for that house, save one” and then headed out to the Boulevard Theatre, considered a suburban venue that was “‘out’ a ways from the downtown section” and where it broke records, as well. Our Dancing Daughters then was screened at Grauman’s Egyptian in Hollywood, where “at this writing [it] bids fair to break the record for that house” with a three-day gross that equaled a week of receipts.
It was mentioned that the picture “received the Hearst plug,” meaning heavy promotion by the powerful media conglomerate headed by William Randolph Hearst, the transparent model for Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film Citizen Kane. Elsewhere in NOW, there is a notable statement by Hearst journalist Arthur Brisbane (1864-1936), who came from a utopian socialist background thanks to his father but became a dedicated conservative capitalist as a key associate of Hearst, including in a substantial real estate empire.
Brisbane’s contribution to the publication was his breathless boosterism of “Wonderful California,” in which he proclaimed, in part:
Everybody in the United States thinks his particular place the best in America and best on earth, but nobody believes it quite as hard as the Californian believes it. He not only believes it and says it, but he actually KNOWS it and will swear to it . . .
Everybody here in California will prove to you that this western country’s future is by far the biggest, only just stating, and the cities are destined to be the biggest in the world.
There are millions of beautiful places in this nation and in this great West. None better than this. Come out here. Look at it, and bring your money with you . . .
There is no such land elsewhere on earth. Any rival of California is an unthinkable as a rival of the sun shining in the sky. Those who have traveled and compared know it.
President Franklin’s “Personal Talks” page was a message to West Coast employees to “not become so satisfied with ourselves that we fail to hear—and heed—those about us. We must not become so sure of our opinions that we cannot listen to the opinions of others.” He cautioned against over-confidence and warned against building “a wall around ourselves so as to exclude and treat with disrespect the thoughts of others.”
It was true leadership, he went on, to surround oneself with those who could provide “free expression and criticism” as “with the opinion of others as counsellors” a leader was “better able to measure the way to true value.” Suggesting that having this cadre of associates meant that “the wilderness of uncertainty is clear,” Franklin observed that such a policy “applies particularly to show business “because unless we are willing to heed the frame of mind of others, we are apt to become stale and lose our perspective.”
Extending this argument outward to West Coast’s customers, the president queried, “how can we tell what the public wants unless we heed that public?” and added “the voice of the patron is the voice of the community.” He reminded his associates that “the public as a whole is never wrong” and “it is the one sure-fire critic that we must pay attention to.” It was an imperative for managers to listen to patrons “because collectively such expressions guide to us to a clear understanding as to the ‘purchasing’ viewpoint of the public.” Consequently, Franklin concluded, “if we are to excel, we must keep our ear attuned to the Voice of the People.”
With respect to listening—and note the striking cover art accompanying the West Coast head’s editorial—the dedication of the $10 million Movietone City studio was the core article of the issue (it was noted that there were four additional pages to NOW, beginning with this number). It was reported that 50,000 invitations were sent out for the event, held on 28 October from 2:30 to 5 p.m. The opening of the studio was accounted as “perhaps, the most important milestone in the history of ‘sound pictures’ to date.”
It was deemed remarkable that construction began on 28 July and, in just that short period,
with every foot of the acreage barren, hilly ground and where there has been built twenty-seven buildings, constructed of reinforced concrete, a fourteen foot wall surrounding the entire plant and four of the buildings, which will be used to house sound-proof stages measuring 22 by 165 feet with walls that are 45 feet high.
To finish the studio in just three months was considered a tribute to the work of architect G.H. Mulldorfer, a Fox Films employee, and construction engineer H. Keith Weeks. In addition to the tens of thousands in attendance, it was anticipated that there would be million listening by radio with a broadcast from the studio over the KMTR radio station.
Entertainment included comedians and bands and an invocation presented by a pastor, the Rev. Neal Dodd, “a clergyman beloved in the film colony” and addresses by Rabbi Isadore Isaacson of the Hollywood Temple of Israel and Rev. Joseph Sullivan of Loyola (now Loyola Marymount) University. Actor Mary Duncan, the “brilliant and beautiful Fox Film star,” unveiled a bronze plaque and the event filmed by Fox Movietonews, which ran the newsreels shown before the features in movie theaters.
Media coverage was fairly extensive during October with some interesting references to the landscaping at Movietone City. The edition of the Los Angeles Times of the 8th noted that the $10 million price tag comprised 30% devoted to the purchase of the 40 acres, the same percentage was dedicated toward the wall and 25 building, and the remaining 40% went toward electrical material and other items. The edition of the 12th mentioned that the dedication “will take place in a setting of charm and beauty” with landscape architect John Finken, assisted by Mulldorfer, designing a campus with
Hundreds of trees, dominantly orange, olive and palms, are being transplanted full-grown. There will be flower gardens. A sunken garden of Romanesque design, with pergolas, fountains, statues and pools will be the outstanding feature.
On the 16th, the Times added that the gardens “are being patterned after the gardens of Versailles and that “one feature is the inclusion of the outstanding flower, or shrub, of each state in the Union.” In addition to the comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, who began performing in circuses and moved to burlesque and vaudeville before becoming well-known for a series of RKO comedy shorts in the first years of the 1930s and the band of the Al Malaikah Shriners, along with Mary Duncan’s bronze plaque dedication, there were speeches by prominent attorneys Joseph Scott and Oscar Lawler and George L. Eastman, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
In its issue of the 17th, the Los Angeles Express noted that “all roads in the vicinity of Los Angeles will lead to Fox hills” for the dedication of what it termed the “miracle city,” given its rapid construction. This included 1,500 laborers in three shifts working constantly among what was part of a larger 350-acre tract dubbed “Fox Hills.” For soundproofing, it was recorded that the soundstage walls were four feet thick and cork and air space within, while folding doors allowed for silent access and it was added that “the largest Wurlitzer organ ever built for inside work is being installed on one of the upper floors of the buildings.”
Critic Edwin Schallert of the Times commented on the 21st regarding the “irrefutably powerful” commitment that Fox made to talkies with his massive studio project. He noted that, when the Movietone City was completed, there would be up to ten soundstages, as well as the administration building and a dozen other structures for projection, sound synchronization, ventilation and other purposes and added “it is to be as huge and complete as a city to itself.”
Schallert did wonder about investment on this scale for “an invention that is still in its swaddling clothes” and then added “the public’s acceptance of talking pictures seems well taken for granted.” While nowhere near as intensive as Fox’s gambit (which, as was noted above and with other massive spending, proved his undoing), Warner Brothers spent a half-million on its Vitaphone stage and another of that amount was forthcoming. MGM was nearly finished with its soundstage and First National and United Artists were working on theirs, while Paramount-Famous-Lasky had a temporary operation and plans for a permanent edifice and Pathé and other studios were also working out of temporary stages.
In its editorial page on the 24th, the paper amplified the point about theatergoers embrace of talkies and the decision of studios to spend large sums on soundstages for the purpose and cited Movietone City as emblematic of the confidence expressed about the future of the innovation. It continued that “Fox Movietone City is the most pretentious investment in picture-making since the building of the First National studio,” this latter completed in Burbank in 1926 and purchased by Warner Brothers in September 1928.
Noting that faith in sound films was well evidenced by the Fox project, the editorial continued that
This action of the Fox Film Corporation also intrenches Los Angeles more firmly as the movie and dramatic center of the world. Sensing its coming hold on theatergoers, New York has been making strenuous bids to secure for Gotham this valuable protective industry. The Movietone city near Hollywood puts an end to the hopes of other communities to separate the talkies from the old movie home . . .
In every way the preference shown by the producers of talkies for the old film camping ground promises well for the continued prosperity of all southern California industries affiliated with the enterprise that has made Hollywood known in the remotest corners of the earth.
On the day of the opening, some 15,000 vehicles descended on the area around the studio vying for parking space. Lawler’s address expatiated on the sound recording revolution and lauded Fox for his rise from a penny arcade in Brooklyn in the early years of the century to a titan heading “one of the greatest theatrical and motion-picture concerns in the world.”
As visitors poured through the complex, particular interest was held by the four massive soundstage structures, each with two stages for filming, while among the structures were “studio cottages of [the] stars” and contractor George E. Miller was featured for the record time in completing the work.
Jimmy Starr in his “Cinematters” column for the Los Angeles Record, also of the 29th, wrote that “yesterday a man’s dream came true—it was a vision that cost nearly ten million dollars to make people happy . . . . it was the Fox-Movietone City, Fox Hills studio, Westwood.” Also mentioned was the vital role of Fox vice-president Winfield R. Sheehan, who rose from being involved in company security to being the chief’s personal secretary and to general manager, vice-president and production head, maintaining this latter role after Fox was ousted. Replaced in 1935 by Darryl Zanuck, Sheehan became an independent producer until his death a decade later.
After noting that such Fox stars as Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien, Sue Carol, Louise Fazenda were on hand for the ceremonies, Starr concluded by observing that “it was a gala and never-to-be-forgotten day for the William Fox organization, and we herewith present our sincere congratulations for one of the most perfectly equipped talking motion picture studios in the world.”
As with other editions of NOW shared on this blog, this one is full of interesting content related to the film and motion picture theater industries, with the opening of Movietone City, which had further soundstages and other elements built through 1932, being preeminent. Now known as the Fox Studio Lot, the facility has 15 soundstages as well as on-lot filming locales, a New York street backlot and the full complement of space for film production in what comprises 2 million square feet. There are a few more issues of NOW in the Museum’s collection, which we’ll look to share in future posts.